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OPEN for Discussion: How Can You Write a More Effective Help Wanted Ad?

According to these experts, job applicants may be way more interested in what you can do for them than on what you require from them.
March 30, 2015

In 2009, attracting job applicants seemed to be the least of any business owner’s problems. The Great Recession sent unemployment soaring, and response rates to help-wanted ads followed suit. Six years later, with unemployment at levels not seen since mid-2008, small employers may have to work harder to get good candidates to apply for open positions.

OPEN Forum recently discussed best practices for this go-to tool in small-business recruiting with two experts on help wanted advertising: David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a 60-person firm providing human resources outsourcing and consulting, and owner of AllCountyJobs.com, a regional network of job boards on the East Coast; and David Jones, associate professor of business at the University of Vermont and co-author of a recently published research study that found the way want ads are written can powerfully affect the quantity and quality of the job applicants who respond to them. 

How important are help wanted ads for small employers?

David Lewis: It’s the primary vehicle that smaller businesses use to find people. The question isn’t whether they’re still putting help wanted ads out; it’s a question of where they’re going. Twenty years ago, it was the Tuesday and Sunday newspaper in your local markets. Today there are a lot of different options, from major job boards to regional boards to niche ones. 

David Jones: I wholeheartedly agree. You can’t get candidates to apply or participate in an interview unless they know about the job opportunity. And for the vast majority of jobs in North America, that’s still done through help wanted ads. We’re seeing a rise in the use of social media for getting applicants, but so far that's just scratching the surface.

What are desired outcomes of help wanted ads? More applicants? Better fits? Both?

Lewis: Most companies are hoping that by putting the ads out, they’re going to see both quality and quantity. I’m not sure that’s always a realistic expectation. But job boards these days are mostly judged based on volume first, quality second.

Jones: The first goal is quantity, and the reason quantity matters is because that’s how you increase the likelihood of quality and fit. With a larger applicant pool, you increase by far the likelihood of hiring a high-performing employee who is going to stay for a longer while. A large applicant pool makes it so much easier to identify those superstars.

Are there any problems with the way some small employers use ads? How can they do better?

Lewis: Small employers need to engage some copywriters or go back to college for English. Many times the reason an ad fails has little to do with the lack of appropriate traffic on that job board. It has to do with the image an employer is expressing, as well as the information they’re sharing about their company. In a small business, you don’t have the benefit of branding. Half the battle is educating the reader on who you are and what you do and why you are an attractive potential employer. Small businesses do a terrible job of this. As a result, their jobs get looked at and skipped.

Jones: We content-analyzed job ads, and some of them were shockingly poorly written, with spelling mistakes and horrible attention to detail. That sends the wrong signals to applicants about the quality of that employer. Who’s going to work at a place like that? And the majority of the ads we analyzed focused on what the company needs from the employee—"you need these qualifications, you must be punctual" and so on. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t include that, but what was missing is "what we’ll do for you" and "if you work here, this will be the work environment."

It turns out that including that extra wording about "what we’ll do for you" improves the quantity and quality of applications. It looks like there are real missed opportunities in a lot of these job ads.

Lewis: There’s no selling. It’s kind of amazing. Four or five years ago, post-Great Recession, you could still be successful with a lousy ad because you were one of the few who posted. It's now a market for job seekers to pick and choose where they want to go more so than it has in the last seven years. You have to be on your game as a small business if you’re going to attract people.

How much does it help to improve ad wording?

Lewis: We found almost three times as many of the highest-rated applicants, based on their resumes, were applying when ads included things like "you’ll have autonomy" or "opportunities to grow." Those kinds of statements had a huge impact. And the real impact was on the quality of applicants. 

What are limits or risks, if any, to changing ad wording? For instance, could you attract overly self-interested workers?

Lewis: You can be too voluminous with your descriptions and content. A lot of companies tend to make that mistake as well, thinking the candidate is going to read all that stuff. There’s something to be said for standard Internet etiquette that implies you should not ask the person looking at your posting to have to scroll, or at least to be able to see most to the copy on one page. A page and a half might be your cutoff. 

Jones: The big risk is if a jobseeker thinks you’re promising something—whether you said it or not—and then they start working there and they think you lied to them. Unmet expectations is a really big predictor of early turnover. And early turnover is really expensive. I’d always urge anybody writing a job ad not to overstate the truth. It’s always going to create problems in the long run.

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